El Chapo Had Help From Prison Insiders

El Chapo inset prison background

Images courtesy of Reuters/US DEA

El Chapo Had Help From Prison Insiders
| published July 14, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Word that drug kingpin and Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had help breaking out of Mexico’s most secure federal prison comes as no particular shock to anyone who follows the news, or recalls Guzman’s fondness for tunneling in the years he evaded police after his 2001 escape from prison.

The tunnel which was constructed to facilitate his escape this past weekend stretched for nearly a mile, was built using sophisticated materials, included electric lighting in places, and contained a track-like area upon which was mounted a motorcycle, which investigators believe was used both for construction purposes—a mechanized way to move dirt and sand—and finally as a means to speed up the final moments of Guzman’s flight from the prison.

The elaborate tunnel also included use of brand new pipeline conduit, placed there as part of a massive construction project which ran—not surprisingly—immediately alongside one of the prison’s outer walls. This has raised the obvious question: why would such an invasive digging project be authorized so close to the prison, in some cases just three feet from the prison’s outer perimeter?

Construction of the tunnel, especially those parts nearest the prison, under the prison and inside the shower and bathroom areas, would have created lots of noise and generated debris, and required heavy manpower, equipment, and tools.

In all, investigators believe that as many 50 people may have acted as accomplices in El Chapo’s dramatic escape from the federal prison at Toluca, about an hour’s drive west of Mexico City.

But Mexico’s top officials—including the Attorney General and the Interior Minister—say that Guzman also had help from the inside…lots of help…from guards, from police, from prison managers and supervisors. And though it is little consolation for the police and prosecutors now enraged by Guzman’s escape—his second prison breakout in 15 years—Mexico’s Interior Minister says that at least three people working at the prison have been fired, and more dismissals may be coming soon.

The day after Guzman’s escape, some 35 prison workers were detained for questioning, with many of them still being held now. Authorities will want to know how the construction of that tunnel which facilitated Guzman’s escape went unnoticed for a year or more.

Guzman was last seen around 9 p.m. on Saturday night as he entered the shower and bathroom area a few steps away from his cell. The prison at Toluca is hardwired with more than 750 video cameras, and hundreds of motion-detection devices. Many of the cell blocks, including that which held Guzman, are also wired for sound. Investigators say that Guzman walked calmly into the concrete and tile shower and washroom area, and then disappeared from the video a few minutes later.

El Chapo apparently slipped through a 20 inch by 20 inch portal in the bathroom tile, climbed down a 20 foot ladder, and entered one end of a set of tunnels which stretched for at least a mile. He may have walked a short distance to another, larger tunnel, some 60 feet below the surface, where he climbed aboard a waiting motorcycle and sped off toward the south and southeast. He emerged from the tunnel by way of another ladder and a 24 inch portal in the concrete and sand floor of a small house under construction one mile away.

Despite a massive manhunt and hundreds of checkpoints and road blocks, law enforcement officials have no clues of Guzman’s whereabouts. All flights in and out of regional airports were grounded, and service to area bus depots and train stations were halted. Additional teams of security were placed at Mexico International Airport, and authorities in both Guatemala and the United States posted extra personnel at all border checkpoints.

But most analysts agree that Guzman may be long gone, and the conventional wisdom—even among some Mexican authorities—is that any plan by El Chapo and his organization to set him free of the prison would have also included elaborate and sophisticated contingencies for every possible form of evasion once he was outside the prison walls.

Guzman has been the chief of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel since the late 1980s. After the arrests and decline of rival Columbian drug lords Carlos Lehder and Pablo Escobar, Guzman became one of the most powerful drug traffickers in North and Central America. Arrested in 1993, Guzman ran his criminal empire and drug distribution operations from inside a maximum security prison in Jalisco. In 2001, with the help of a dozen guards and officers, he escaped from prison by way of a laundry cart. Once ensconced in power again at the head of his criminal operations, he unleashed a brutal war with rivals cartels and competing gangs all across Mexico and Central America. Those battles with rival criminals cost the lives of 100,000 people, many of them civilians and police. Guzman also systematically murdered any law enforcement or police who posed a threat to his operations, which quickly expanded to become the largest drug trafficking organization in the world.

Some of the worst violence took place in cities, towns and rural areas along the frontier between the United States and Mexico. Guzman’s criminal activities included smuggling of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States, as well as human trafficking and border crossings for hire. The Sinaloa Cartel was known a decade ago for their construction of sophisticated tunnels under the border, and some of those tunnels—used for drug smuggling, transporting cash and weapons, and human traffic—extended for more than a mile. Before his most recent arrest in 2014, Forbes magazine named Guzman one of the world’s richest individuals, with a criminal empire worth more than $20 billion and a personal wealth of $1.5 billion.

Guzman’s escape delivers a black eye to the current Mexican administration of Enrique Pena Nieto. Pena Nieto campaigned as a reformer, and promised the Mexican people that his party—the PRI, or Insitutional Revolutionary Party—would deliver a top down clean-up of corruption, while also delivering competent governance. After an initial spate of major arrests and reforms (most notably the capture of Guzman at a Pacific Coast apartment in February 2014), however, things turned worse for Pena Nieto. Last September 43 students and young people were abducted by police and paramilitary operatives in the town of Iguala, in Guerrero. Later, some of the remains of those 43 students turned up in a mass grave at a garbage dump in a remote part of Guerrero. The bodies had been hacked up, and most of the remains had been set afire. DNA evidence has linked some of the remains to the missing students, though several who were arrested claim that all students had been killed and all bodies burned. The kidnappings and murders were allegedly ordered by the wife of Iguala’s mayor shortly in advance of a planned protest; the mayor, his wife and several local cops all had links to the Sinaloa Cartel and other criminal gangs.

Though Mexican law enforcement has now placed heavy emphasis on Guzman’s recapture, experts believe that El Chapo will not be easily caught again. Some analysts suggest that depending on the extent of the inside help he received, Guxman may have already slipped the noose of the cordon of roadblocks and checkpoints in the region near the prison.

The Associated Press reported on Monday that documents and emails show that U.S. officials with both the DEA and FBI worried mightily about a possible Guzman escape, and that those same agencies had communicated those concerns to the Mexican government. Internal DEA memos and correspondence shows that U.S. intelligence agents had received “chatter” via intercepted text messages and cell phone conversations indicating that numerous Guzman operatives were already at work on a potential escape as early as mid-2014, more than one year ago. Furthermore, U.S. analysts had a strong reason to believe that El Chapo’s escape might be way of a tunnel operation. Despite these warnings to the Mexican authorities, top Mexican officials felt it was better to maintain Guzman’s incarceration in the country which had been his criminal headquarters for decades.

Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel extends its criminal reach into scores of countries, and as many as 50 U.S. cities. Guzman’s narcotics distribution reaches into parts of Europe, Canada, much of the U.S., and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.

Related Thursday Review articles:

U.S. Officials Aware of Guzman Escape Plans; Thursday Review writers; July 13, 2015.

El Chapo Escapes From Mexican Prison; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 12, 2015.